- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. officials, in deciding how to handle the lone surviving pirate from the hostage-taking of an American ship captain, must weigh the violence of the suspect’s actions against his surprisingly young age.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday the four pirates were between 17 and 19 years old.

Authorities had previously put the surviving Somali suspect’s age at somewhere from 16 to 20. He surrendered Sunday, leaving a covered lifeboat where he and three other pirates had been holding merchant Capt. Richard Phillips hostage. Shortly after his surrender, the three others were killed by snipers. Phillips was rescued unharmed.

“Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons,” Gates told a group of students and faculty at the Marine Corps War College. “Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that.”

U.S. officials are now considering whether to bring the unidentified suspect to the United States or possibly turn him over to Kenya. If he is brought to the U.S., he’d most likely be put on trial in New York or Washington.

Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life prison sentences under U.S. law.

Federal judges don’t see many defendants younger than 18, said New Orleans-based lawyer Sandra Jenkins, who has handled such cases.

“It’s very rare,” said Jenkins. “And usually, it’s juveniles with adults involved, meaning a juvenile is charged with an adult or a group of adults.”

In deciding when to charge a minor in federal court, the law requires officials to consider “the age and social background of the juvenile,” as well as the nature of the offense.

Verifying the background of this particular teenager may be difficult to impossible. Somalia has suffered nearly 20 years of anarchy, ruled chaotically by rival clans employing pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

Asked how the suspect’s age might factor into the decision whether to prosecute him in the United States, Justice Dept. spokesman Dean Boyd said only that they were considering “the evidence and other issues” in the case.

Jo Becker, a D.C.-based advocate for Human Rights Watch, said if the pirate suspect is in fact 16 or 17 years old, “he would certainly be entitled to protections under international law that allow for lower culpability of juveniles involved in crimes.”

Becker says international law recognizes that people under 18 are “less developed, less mature, and more easily manipulated by adults.”

Ideally, Becker said, an underage suspect would be tried in a juvenile court, with special protections given his age. “He would need to have access to family members. Throughout the whole process, there needs to be a special view to his rehabilitation,” she added.

Kenneth Randall, dean of the University of Alabama School of Law, said the suspect’s age may not affect where or how he is charged, but is likely to impact his eventual sentence.

“When it comes to international attention, they do have to be mindful of the mitigating circumstances of his age,” said Randall.

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